First, let’s define “diet culture.” The internet has lots of varying definitions for this term, so I’ll focus on diet culture as it affects the people I care about both in and out of my office: a culture that conflates thinness and certain styles of eating with beauty, morality, and well-being, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Is healthy living bad? Of course not! Eat foods that make you feel alive gorgeous inside and out, and move your body in ways that are affirming and fun. You can even work on changing your body if that’s your jam. But what I want to warn you about is making body size, eating, or exercise anything “more” than just that.
For most people, opting out of diet culture starts with three levels of awareness: advertising and media, interpersonal relationships, and finally their own thoughts and choices. In each category, we’re aiming for mindfulness- just become aware of what you’re hearing, seeing, and thinking and how that affects you.
- Advertising and media: Ask yourself a few questions. In the media you regularly look at, whether it’s TV or magazines or instagram or anything else, how are bodies portrayed? Is there a wide variety of shapes and sizes, or do you see only one “type” of person? (lookin’ at you, Yoga Journal and Psychology Today). What about eating- are there foods portrayed as “good” or “bad?”
- Interpersonal relationships: How much of your day-to-day interactions center on discussions of food or dieting? When you’re out with friends and someone orders fries or desert, do they make comments about being “bad” or “deserving it” or what they’re doing to burn it off? Diet-culture-moderated talk is a pretty common bonding method. Important!: It’s really crucial to remember that we’re not trying to change anything or judge anyone here. And we’re definitely not going to change someone else’s way of thinking. I’m just asking you to notice diet culture in your relationships so you can make informed choices about how much to engage with it.
- Your own thoughts: Now’s where it gets tricky. I’m not gonna lie- for most people I work with, this aspect takes a while to master, but you’ll feel better with even a little bit of awareness. What thoughts run through your head as you make choices about eating or exercising? Can you feel sexy in your body as it is today- and do you think you could feel sexy at 50 pounds heavier or lighter? Again, we’re not looking to change anything directly, which is cool, because you’re not your thoughts despite having a lot of them.
OK, Abby- I did the awareness work and can see that my life is positively steeped in diet culture nonsense. What now? Good question! In session, we’d rely on your felt sense- an inner way of knowing- to determine which place to start “opting out.” Since you don’t have me to coach you through that right now, I’m going to ask you to pick a low-hanging fruit: something that feels easy.
The key is to add something in rather than change something. Here are a few examples from each category:
- Advertising and media: When you see the thin ideal or “fat shaming” in mass media, silently affirm to yourself, “That may be their ideal, but it isn’t mine.” Follow body-positive artists and activists on social media to expose yourself to other ideas of beauty.
- Relationships: Make a point of being relentlessly positive with people you care about. Tell them when you think they look great, or when you’re really impressed with something they’re doing. Make it super clear that you love them regardless of size- and that you hope they will treat you with the same kind of care.
- Your own thoughts: When you catch yourself thinking shitty thoughts about yourself or your habits, ask yourself what you’d say if someone you loved- your best friend or partner or child- said those kind of things. Acknowledge the thoughts: “I hear that you don’t like your _______ right now, but I hope you know I’m so proud of you for _______.”
This is definitely a “yes, and…” approach to reclaiming your relationship with your body and food. If it were up to me, magazines would show gorgeous people of all shapes and sizes, friends would be positive and nurturing, and your own inner critic would be helpful rather than a jerk. But that’s not usually the case, and as we talked about last week, you can’t force something to change without accepting it.
I often remind my clients that ditching the diet mentality means being “sane in an insane world”- even when you’ve completely let go of it, you’d still probably be getting negative messages on a daily basis. So please treat yourself with kindness and approach this as an open-ended exploration- it can be so amazing to see what you can create when you let go of the diet culture focus.
I know this isn’t easy, and I want to support you on this empowering journey. Schedule a free phone consultation to discuss whether therapy can help.